The Book of the Baku follows Sean, a teen who’s having to move in with a grandfather he’s never met before, following a family tragedy that’s forced him to leave his home, and caused him to become mute. His social workers tell him that he needs to confront his trauma in order to move on, to get his voice back, and that he can’t just hide away from what happened to him; but Sean’s having trouble facing up to what happened. He’s blocking out his friends, and retreating into his art.
Luckily for Sean, his grandfather seems to understand that he needs his own time and space, and converts his home conservatory into a bright new art studio for his grandson. He buys Sean stacks of art supplies, and encourages him to pursue his passions. At first, everything seems to be going well between the two of them, despite them struggling to get to know each other for the first time.
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Things change, however, when Sean discovers a collection of horror stories in his granddad’s library: ‘The Book of the Baku’, which Sean’s grandfather wrote himself years ago. The stories tell of children haunted by awful nightmares, and how they give these nightmares over to the mythic Baku, a statue that can eat their bad dreams. But when Sean starts to have these nightmares himself, and starts to see the Baku, he begins to fear that the creature might be real, and that it’s coming for him. Now he has to try to avoid dreaming, avoid letting the Baku in closer to him whilst his grandfather retreats back into his writing shed, zombie like, and the house begins to decay around them both.
At first I thought The Book of the Baku was going to be a pure horror story, a book about monsters and nightmares. It ticks a lot of those boxes, and the nightmares and short stories that fill the pages of the novel are incredibly chilling at times, but it soon became apparent that the book was going to be a lot more than watching this boy struggle against supernatural forces, and is as much about trauma and loss as it is anything else.
Throughout the book we learn more and more about Sean through flashbacks scattered across the narrative. These moments take us back to a time before Sean moves in with his grandfather, before he fell mute, when is life was somewhat happy. Having grown up in a poor neighbourhood, Sean has had to struggle most of his life, and has had to mature quickly. Yes, he and his close friends still play childish games, but they live a life where drink, drugs, and gang violence are a constant part of their lives. Sean has had to struggle and fight for what he has, and it shows that he was a very strong young man, and raises the question of what would have been so awful as to traumatise him so much.
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R.L. Boyle is very clever at giving you enough hints at what this could be through these flashbacks; enough possible scenarios that you’re constantly trying to work out what it might have been. There are a few possibilities, but when I found out what it was it broke me. I’m not ashamed to say that I genuinely wept, that the book brought out floods of tears and all I wanted to do was to give Sean a huge hug and tell him everything was going to be okay.
Even though the book is about monsters, ghosts, and horror stories on a surface level it’s so much deeper than that, and it deals with grief and trauma so beautifully, and made it one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve ever read. I’ve seen the book being compared to A Monster Calls, and that’s an incredibly apt comparison. I can see the people who loved that book loving this one, and it deserves to be as loved, recognised, and awarded as it was. The Book of the Baku is not only the best book I’ve read this year, but perhaps one of the best I’ve ever read, and it needs to be read by everyone.
The Book of the Baku is out on 15th June from Titan Books.